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Bible for Thinkers

Liberals love the Bible, too. We just look at it differently. This is a place to discuss the Bible where you don't have to check your brain at the door. There are many ways to see it, and many ways to have it come to life.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Matt. 5:21-26

I've been asked to comment on this passage in Matthew, but to save you having to look it up, I'll put the text here (from the NRSV):

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, "You shall not murder"; and "whoever murders shall be liable to judgment." But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, "You fool," you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

This verse first struck me as a teenager, when I read it with great anguish, remembering that my favorite term for my younger brother was "fool." Hellfire loomed.

I'm sure there are textual nuances and cultural circumstances of which I am unaware. I don't know the cultural implications of the word "fool" in 1st century Palestine, or the ins and outs of the court system. I do know, however, that when you pull back for the long view, this is an important passage that ties in with the central New Testament theme of Incarnation.

All of our religious devotion, rituals, and practices are pretty well useless if they don't evidence themselves in the flesh...if they have no effect on how well we love our neighbors. Bringing your tithe to church doesn't earn you the first brownie point with God, if you go home and are nasty to your family. Christian faith is lived out in the carne...where the rubber meets the road. If it doesn't result in greater love for God, self, and neighbor, it is a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.

This passage also points out the truth that we are much better off dealing directly with people rather than trying to resolve our issues through institutions. Having spent time as a conflict mediator with the Justice Center of Atlanta, I can really relate to this. By helping people resolve issues face to face, we reached resolutions that otherwise would have landed in the lap of a judge to decide, and it would not have been a good experience for either party. We are so quick to take our cases to court, where somebody wins and somebody loses and the only one truly better off is the lawyer. This passage encourages us to use the court system only as a last resort. Work it out with the other party. Meet face to face where you can acknowledge your common humanity. Apologize for your part, let it be known that you want to work things out. Sometimes it does have to go to court, but more times than not, simple confessions and apologies will soften the heart enough to lighten the case load of your attorney. Once the legal system takes over, you are bound by the black and white of the law..."you will never get out until you have paid the last penny."

Going back to the first part of this passage, verses 21-22 begin a series of statements that are structured, "You have heard it said...but I say to you..." Each one takes a statement of law about a given action...murder, adultery, divorce, swearing falsely, etc. Then Jesus expands the law to show that the sin does not begin with the action, but in the heart. A sinful action is the end product of a process that begins with our general attitude towards ourselves and others, moves to the mind as a specific thought and finally results in a physical act.

In this particular passage we see how murder comes to be. If the general attitude toward another is scornful ("You fool"), and events cause anger in the heart, murder results...or at least it becomes more likely. This strikes me as psychologically true. Jesus is not trying to make life harder by expanding the commandments to our attitudes and emotions. He is simply trying to show the psychological truth that our actions, good or bad, begin with the attitudes of our hearts. Better to tackle the problem at the source...with the negative attitude, dealing with the anger by trying to directly resolve the conflict and being reconciled to someone. Then there will be fewer irreversible actions to worry about.


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